Is Lack Of Innovation Killing Telehealth?


Michael O’Sullivan – Managing Partner – Psyclarity Health.

In the space of just two and a half years, telehealth went from being a footnote on most healthcare providers’ list of services to a nonnegotiable requirement for millions of Americans. The Covid-19 pandemic forced us to think differently about the way healthcare services are delivered, and telemedicine and the technologies that enabled it became some of the most critical components of our healthcare infrastructure virtually overnight.

But as the world opened up again and life went back to “normal,” it seems many have gone back to considering telehealth an adjunct, rather than a core offering of a healthcare plan. Of course, there are pragmatic reasons for this—it’s no longer problematic to visit your physician in-office, hospitals are no longer worried about overcrowding and mask mandates, sanitation stations and compulsory antigen tests are all (thankfully) relics of the past. But I believe there’s another vector that doesn’t get enough time in the spotlight: Innovation—or lack thereof—could stifle the telehealth space to such a degree that it’s at risk of becoming all but irrelevant in a fascinatingly short space of time.

Right Place, Right Time: Telehealth’s Emerging Presence Pre-Covid

In order to assess the state of telehealth today, it’s pertinent to take a brief look at its history. The CDC reports that, before the pandemic, around 43% of health centers in the U.S. offered telehealth options in 2019. By mid-2020, that increased to 95%, and in urban areas as much as 30% of total healthcare visits were conducted virtually. That isn’t to say that telehealth was unheard of. Before the pandemic, there had been a slow but steady proliferation of telehealth services, but the trend of widespread telehealth only kicked off in earnest from around March 2020. Before this, patients and providers wanting to make use of telehealth services had to deal with inconsistent and sometimes inadequate reimbursement for the services, stringent privacy regulations that required a significant investment into secure telecommunications technology, and rigid rules about where each party should be based. Many of these regulations were relaxed in order to cater to the new demands that came with the onset of the pandemic, and remain as such today. So, why has telehealth seemingly stagnated after some substantial groundwork was laid?

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The Delicate Balance Between Technological And Regulatory Innovation

The rise of telehealth in the last few years was, understandably, driven by urgent necessity. Lockdowns and hospital overcrowding gave healthcare providers no choice but to invest in the most readily available telehealth solutions—in other words, any established technologies that could be leveraged for healthcare-at-a-distance were taken up rapidly. It’s important to note the distinction between synchronous telemedicine—where the doctor and patient interact in real time—and asynchronous telehealth, in which medical care is still provided virtually but doesn’t happen in real time. On the whole, it’s clear that the U.S. healthcare space saw a dramatic increase in the number of physicians offering basic synchronous telemedicine services like webcam consultations, virtual urgent care and basic patient-physician communication over digital channels, as well as an increase in asynchronous services like remote Covid-19 screening and testing, digital prescriptions and remote monitoring.

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Despite the progress made in technology, insurance and regulation, the uptake of telemedicine post-pandemic has been underwhelming. And, despite the expansion of reimbursable telemedicine services, it’s had little impact on the preexisting inequities in the U.S. healthcare system—particularly in serving the elderly, poor and disabled population. “Telehealth has so much promise,” said April Mims, vice president of public policy at Hims and Hers, a direct-to-consumer telehealth platform, “But unless we can make all these tools accessible to more people, we’re not going to fully deliver on the promise of telehealth.” The responsibility for making those tools accessible to the wider American public lies with telehealth providers themselves—price structure, availability on widely used desktop and mobile platforms and accessible, easily understood products, for example. But another barrier lies within the regulatory and legislative landscape. Alvin Powell, in the same article, explains why it’s important “that experts have a say in legislation and regulation affecting the burgeoning practice, both of which are under consideration in several states and at the federal level.”

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What Will Innovation Look Like In Telehealth Technology And Regulation?

It’s vital that any changes meant to streamline these services democratize access and ensure that the protection of patients’ privacy does not make it more difficult for companies to disrupt and innovate on telemedicine services. There are so many emerging and maturing technologies that could radically change the way the American patient interacts with healthcare services—take augmented and virtual reality, for example. These technologies are already being explored for their potential to revolutionize the way surgeries and diagnostics are performed, but there are countless other applications to consider, particularly in the field of mental healthcare. Consider how virtual consultations with mental healthcare professionals could help patients with debilitating anxiety and panic disorders get the help they need without having to leave the safety of their own homes.

As much as we can speculate and guess about the future of telehealth, real innovation seldom sticks to the forecasts and predictions made from the present day. It’s my hope and belief that within the next few years, we might see some truly revolutionary changes in the telehealth landscape, and that remote medical care will become a core component of healthcare services rather than an optional addition.


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